In King Richard, Will Smith delivers his best performance in recent memory as Serena and Venus Williams' dad

click to enlarge Will Smith's era as a fashion icon is far from over.
Will Smith's era as a fashion icon is far from over.

A film that is as much a caring and comprehensive portrait of a family as it is a look at the exclusive world of tennis, King Richard gives us the best performance Will Smith has done in recent memory as he completely vanishes into the nuances of his character.

Smith plays Richard, the flawed yet resolute patriarch of the Williams family. Yes, this is the real-life Williams family that would raise two of the greatest tennis players of all time: Venus and Serena. It is a film that transcends the trappings of sports biopics by giving life to the relationships within the family.

The film focuses on the early years of their careers as Richard works with a passionate fervor to get them a shot. He has a printed plan that outlines how his two daughters will become the best of their generation, yet every coach Richard approaches brushes him off. It is these repeated rejections, usually by White coaches, that reveal one of the film's central points about the many barriers to entry in tennis. It is humorous to see so many pass up on working with two players we the audience know will come to define the sport for decades. Yet pass them up they do.

In his fully embodied performance, Smith captures a quiet disappointment in his eyes and tone at each rejection. It makes it all the more complex when he proceeds to recommit to preparing for the next person to give his daughters a chance. Richard trains his daughters during the day himself and then works a night shift as a security guard, doing everything he can to keep the dream alive. By grit and determination, he manages to blaze a trail to greatness for his daughters.

It is that central cinematic conversation about what it takes to achieve greatness where the film really finds a narrative sweet spot. Along the journey, Richard is frequently controlling in how he centers himself as being the one who knows best. These moments elicit earned chuckles, such as when he keeps interrupting another coach's practice to interject his own advice. Even with the laughs, there is a deeper sense of discomfort at seeing Richard often overstep into making decisions for his daughters as opposed to with them. He clearly loves them, making it all the more painful to see when he lets them down.

Thankfully, the film is adept and ensures the occasionally overbearing nature of Richard doesn't similarly overshadow the rest of the characters. Both Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena make the most of their scenes, bringing a clear passion for the sport in how hard they train, as well as a youthful joy like when they sing together with their sisters. However, it is Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene "Brandy" Williams who steals every scene she is in. In key moments where the matriarch speaks up against Richard, she brings a resolute disposition in pointing out where he falls short as a father and husband. It is her role in holding things together that makes the title King Richard a frequently ironic one.

All of this is a testament to Reinaldo Marcus Green's confident direction, recalling his debut feature Monsters and Men with how he can navigate an interlocking story without any character getting lost in the shuffle. The result is a film that shows a deep care to the patriarch, with the profound pain he had to endure as a Black man in America, while also frankly showing the family struggles. The direction shows the darkness lurking beneath his genial exterior, with Smith's performance revealing just how tenuous the family's dreams truly are. ♦

Three and a Half Stars KING RICHARD
Rated PG-13
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Starring Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton

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